There are two police oversight propositions on Austin’s ballot. Here’s what they mean.
The language for Propositions A and B on the May 6 ballot are pretty much identical, but they are the result of two petition drives from two very different groups with very different views on police oversight.
If you're a normal human who isn't steeped in city politics, you'd be hard-pressed to discern the difference between the two.
Let's break it down.
What's on the ballot?
Proposition A is at the top of the ballot. It seeks to give more power to the Office of Police Oversight and the citizen-led panel that reviews incidents of police misconduct.
Here's what you'll see on the ballot:
Proposition A: Shall the voters of Austin adopt an initiated ordinance, circulated by Equity Action, that will deter police misconduct and brutality by strengthening the City's system of independent and transparent civilian police oversight?
Proposition B is just below. It would restrict the power of both the Office of Police oversight and the city's citizen-led panel.
Here's what you'll see on the ballot:
Proposition B: Shall the voters of Austin adopt an initiated ordinance, circulated by Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability, that will strengthen the City’s system of independent and transparent civilian police oversight?
You'll notice it's pretty much the same language, save the names of the groups that sought to put them both on the ballot. For Prop A, that's Equity Action. For Prop B, that's Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability.
Who are those groups, and why did they submit nearly identical language to put on the ballot?
Good question. Saddle up, pal.
How did we get here?
This debate stretches back a couple years. In 2021, the city's police union, the Austin Police Association, filed a complaint in court that the office broke state law when it reviewed bodycam footage of an incident.
A judge ultimately sided with the union. That decision didn't outright prevent the office from being able to review cases, but it had a chilling effect.
In 2022, a group sought to enshrine the office's powers in the city charter (basically the city's constitution), so it started a petition drive. That group? Equity Action.
More than 20,000 voters signed the petition. After that, City Council could've gone ahead and empowered the office, but it opted to instead put the decision to voters. Now, it's on May's ballot.
Enter: Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability (VOPA).
Late last year, the group began circulating a petition, as well — one that was remarkably similar to Proposition A.
Equity Action and some Austin City Council members pointed out the group was misleading voters into signing the petition. Equity Action released recordings of canvassers hired by the group admitting they were pretending to be from Equity Action and that they were hired by a third-party.
After that petition was certified, a campaign finance report showed 99% of VOPA's financial backing came from the police union.
Equity Action and its supporters condemned the tactics and the use of out-of-state, so-called pay-to-play canvassers. It should be noted that's totally legal, but the ordeal prompted the city to re-examine its petition rules.
So what's the difference between Prop A and Prop B?
Proposition A would empower the Office of Police Oversight and the city's citizen review panel and give them access to more information in investigations of officers.
Proposition B would limit the use of anonymous complaints and scale back some of the information available to citizen-led oversight groups — the Office of Police Oversight and the Community Police Review Commission.
If Prop A passes, the Office of Police Oversight would have the ability to conduct investigations and interview officers and people who file complaints. Currently, the police department's Internal Affairs Division does that, then passes information to the OPO. The office then recommends disciplinary action to APD.
It would also allow the Office of Police Oversight and the citizen review panel "unfettered access" to police officers' employment files. That's a big sticking point with the police union, which argues such access would violate state law.
The proposition would also require the police chief to report to the OPO on how an officer is disciplined if APD decides not to follow the office's recommendations.
If Prop B passes, Austin would not allow anonymous complaints (or compliments) of police. On top of that, it would limit some of the information the Office of Police Oversight has access to during investigations. OPO would have to rely on information released by APD's internal investigation, and the office wouldn't be able to share certain information with the citizen commission.
Basically, the office would be able to gather information and recommend discipline to the chief only after the internal investigation.
Prop B would also ban people convicted of a Class B misdemeanor up to a felony from serving on the citizen review panel.
Looming over the vote is the city's ongoing negotiations with the police union on its labor contract. The city opted to hold off on a long-term deal with the union until after the election.
If either proposition passes, it'll get incorporated into the contract.
Early voting starts April 24 and runs through May 2.
Election Day is May 6.