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Efforts to expand oversight of Austin police have been stuck. What's in store for 2024?

Gabriel C. Pêrez
/
KUT

Lee esta historia en español

Austin voters OK’d a sweeping proposition to expand police oversight in May. Months later, the city has been slow to roll out the Austin Police Oversight Act, and changes may not be coming soon in the new year.

Let's take a look at why that is and where things could go in 2024.

Here's what the Austin Police Oversight Act does

The measure voters passed expands oversight of the police broadly. Say an officer is accused of misconduct and there's an investigation to determine whether discipline is warranted. Under the APOA, the city's civilian-led Office of Police Oversight has more power in the investigation and would even be able to subpoena officers.

Perhaps most importantly, the APOA would allow the office to see officers' employment files, which detail previous complaints and incidents. That's a huge sticking point.

The city's police union, the Austin Police Association, says that access violates state law which it says bans civilians from viewing these files.

Then there's the lawsuit

Equity Action, the group that got the APOA on the ballot, filed a lawsuit this month in an effort to force the city to implement the measure.

That puts the city in a tricky situation. It has been trying to negotiate a longterm labor contract with the police union and says it needs to incorporate the APOA into the deal before moving forward. The police union walked away from contract talks in early 2023.

District Attorney Jose Garza's office last week dropped the indictments of 17 officers who were accused of assault during the 2020 racial justice protests. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, who has promised to "address the very broken relationship" between the city and APD, pitched that as a move to get the conversation surrounding policing "unstuck."

Less than a week later, though, Garza's office indicted another police officer.

APA President Michael Bullock told KUT on Wednesday the indictment could stymie contract negotiations. But he said he hopes talks can restart — after the lawsuit is settled.

"We have some hurdles to get through. Ultimately, everybody wants to get to a contract and, you know, that's what's best for the city and the department," he said. "So that's what we're going to need to work to eventually, but with a lawsuit pending that complicates things."

City leaders have said they hope the negotiations for a new contract can continue next year.

So what's oversight look like now?

This week, a report from the Office of Police Oversight showed Austin police have seen an overall decline in complaints over the last four years.

The report found Austin police investigated only 6.8% of external complaints in 2022, compared to 62% in 2019.

Kathy Mitchell, senior adviser for Equity Action, says that's because the oversight office has not been able to function like it's supposed to because of a 2021 arbitration ruling that stripped its investigative powers. The APOA was largely a response to that: It sought to ensure and enhance the investigative power of the office through a voter referendum.

“This is what happens when you don't have an effective, independent civilian oversight component in place,” she said. “So what this report shows is what happens to accountability when the oversight system has essentially been dismantled.”

"The decrease in the number of external complaints investigated by APD reflects an opportunity for police to build trust with the community," Gail McCant, who leads the oversight office, said in a statement.

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.
Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at lmorenolozano@kut.org. Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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