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Austin hasn't allowed more police oversight, despite voter approval. Now it's getting sued.

The back side of an Austin Police Department car is seen marked with white letters that say "police," as APD officers stand in the background in September 2020.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Austin Police Department officers in September 2020.

A lawsuit in a Travis County court aims to force Austin's hand in rolling out a voter-backed plan to increase police oversight.

Austin voters approved Proposition A in May by a four-to-one margin. The measure, known as the Austin Police Oversight Act, roundly defeated an opposing plan backed by the city's police union. The APOA was set up to bolster the investigative power of the city's citizen-led Office of Police Oversight.

At least, that's what it was supposed to do.

The city has struggled to square the plan with state law, which opponents argue prohibits Austin from forging ahead. A lawsuit filed in district court Tuesday by Equity Action, the nonprofit that put Prop A on the ballot, argues Austin is dragging its feet and wants a judge to force the city to roll out changes.

The suit names interim Austin Police Chief Robin Henderson, interim City Manager Jesús Garza and Gail McCant, director of the Office of Police Oversight as defendants, alleging all three have subverted the will of voters by not implementing APOA.

Specifically, the suit argues, the city is violating its own ordinance by not allowing the Office of Police Oversight to access internal disciplinary files of officers. These files are also known as a "g file."

"City Code ... bans Austin Police Department['s] use of a 'g file,' Garza continues to allow Chief Henderson and the police department to keep information about police misconduct investigations secret and unavailable for civilian review," the lawsuit reads.

Opponents, including the Austin Police Association, say the provisions that include "unfettered" access to police officers' internal employment files violate state law. The city has said it's trying in good faith to implement Prop A, but it's renegotiating its longterm contract with the police union after talks fizzled last year. Austin has been under a temporary agreement with the union since then, and the city says it's not able to roll out expanded powers for the civilian oversight group under the short-term deal.

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said in a newsletter Tuesday he hopes to take up discussions on a longterm contract and, ultimately, mend "the very broken relationship between City Hall and our police."

Watson's note came a day after a deal was struck to dismiss charges against 17 officers over their use of force during racial justice protests in 2020. Travis County District Attorney José Garza announced the dismissals with Watson and interim APD Chief Robin Henderson in a joint statement. Officials also asked the Department of Justice to review APD's use of force during those protests.

In a statement to KUT, Garza said the legal challenge would settle whether state law bans civilian review of personnel files.

“The outstanding question – regarding whether the historically confidential APD personnel files should be made public – is an important and delicate one," Garza said.

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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