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Austin passed a sweeping police oversight measure. Here's what happens next.

Gabriel C. Pérez

Austin resoundingly approved an expansion of police oversight on Saturday.

About 80% of voters in the city approved Proposition A, while the same percentage of voters shut down the opposing proposition, Prop B.

Now, comes the hard part.

City leaders will have to fold Prop A's expansion of the city's Office of Police Oversight into a labor contract with the Austin Police Association, the city's police union.

That contract, which has been in the works for more than a year, would govern a department that's facing a sizable shortage of patrol officers.

On top of all this, a bill at the Texas Legislature could effectively undo Saturday's vote.

There's a lot going on. Let's get into it.

What's up with this labor contract?

Back in February, the city backed out of a long-term police contract with APD's union. This came after then-City Manager Spencer Cronk announced the city had reached a deal with the Austin Police Association. There was a press conference and everything.

Newly sworn-in Austin City Council members were caught off guard, and opted to not enter into Cronk's deal. Why? Because they wanted the May election — centered squarely on civilian-led police oversight — to play out. (More on that structure in a second.)

After that, APA walked away from the negotiating table.

With Prop A passed, Mayor Kirk Watson has said he expects talks to continue, but it's not clear how those talks will fare.

Bottom line, the city needs a long-term deal with APA. Prop A will affect that deal.

How will Prop A affect the contract?

Police oversight has been a focus of these talks since contract negotiations began. That's nothing new: Oversight was top of mind when the city negotiated its last deal with the APA in 2018.

That 2018 deal greatly expanded civilian oversight, despite initial union pushback. That deal created the Office of Police Oversight — one that's led by citizens, not police.

Here's how it works:

Someone — a police officer or a member of the community — complains about possible police misconduct. Then, the department conducts its own internal investigation and gives the OPO relevant information to the case. The OPO can recommend discipline, but APD's leadership doesn't have to follow that recommendation.

Proposition A would expand the OPO's investigative reach. It would be able to request more information during the investigation process and actually participate in interviews with an officer.

Prop A would also allow the OPO to see employment files that outline previous complaints and incidents. That's a huge sticking point.

The APA has said the civilian-led oversight goes beyond what state laws allow, and that the OPO should have the ability to review complaints — but only after internal investigations are complete.

The union, argues, the OPO shouldn't be able to access employment files that outline previous complaints or policy violations, known in cop-speak as a G-file.

Prop A could open up the door to those files becoming available to the OPO and the general public. The OPO and the city's other commission on police oversight, the Community Police Review Commission, would have "unfettered access" under Prop A.

That's a nonstarter for the APA. Saturday the union tweeted that the system under Prop A is illegal under state law. The APA has long contended the system could affect APD's ability to recruit more officers as APD weathers a staffing shortage.

So what's next?

Negotiations are expected to pick back up after the election results are verified. But it's unclear how contentious the process could be, or if the union will even come back to the table.

If they do ultimately reach a deal, it would go to the Austin City Council for approval.

But, even if a deal is reached, the union has argued the city could get sued, as it says the structure violates state law, specifically protections surrounding officers' employment files.

On top of all of that, the Texas Legislature could undo all of this.

A bill from state Sen. Kelly Hancock, a Fort Worth-area Republican, would ban civilian oversight in police complaints, as well as the release of personnel files.

That bill passed the Senate on a party-line vote late last month, and it's before the Texas House Committee on Urban Affairs.

House members have until May 23 to move that bill out of committee and vote it out of the lower chamber.

If passed, it faces a likely OK from Gov. Greg Abbott, given his support of a 2021 bill that targeted the Austin City Council's decision to cut police spending.

Wait, what about the whole state police patrol situation?

That's going to continue, according to Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, at least until APD staffing increases and a long-term deal is reached on the labor contract.

Last week, both Watson and interim City Manager Jesús Garza said the controversial plan to have Department of Public Safety troopers patrol in light of APD being short-staffed was open ended.

Until the department can staff up and a deal is reached, the plan will continue amid pushback from some neighborhoods that argue they've been over-policed and complaints that the deal has disproportionately targeted Black and Latino drivers.

APD has argued the partnership has led to a drop in violent crime, and it serves as a crucial stopgap amid the department's staffing crisis.

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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 Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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