Despite the dissolution of a contract governing its existence, Austin’s Office of the Police Monitor will remain intact for now.
The office fields citizen complaints against officers and has access to internal affairs investigations.
“I intend for these responsibilities to continue in their current form as much as possible," Interim City Manager Elaine Hart wrote in a memo to the mayor and City Council members on Dec. 29. In it, she laid out plans for how the office would maintain the powers it had in the contract that expired last month.
“Yes, it’s remarkable how exactly the same it looks like it will be,” said Kathy Mitchell, a campaign coordinator with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “It will continue to have access to internal affairs investigations, and it will continue to report information to the city manager through that process.”
Mitchell was among roughly 200 people who testified against a proposed new police contract in December. Activists demanded that the contract include more accountability measures, including granting the Office of the Police Monitor, which fields citizen complaints against officers, the power to initiate investigations.
The Austin American-Statesman reports, however, that the Austin Police Association is contesting the legality of allowing the office to function as it has in the past. KUT reached out to the union president Friday, but did not hear back.
When council members voted to reject the contract, the police union decided it would hold off on continuing negotiations until the recently appointed city manager, Spencer Cronk, was on the job. Cronk confirmed by email that his projected start date is Feb. 12.
According to Hart’s memo, the future of a separate police oversight body remains uncertain. “With the expiration of the meet and confer agreement, those parts of the OPM role involving the citizen review panel (CRP) will also need to be reassessed,” she wrote.
The Citizen Review Panel is made up of civilian volunteers who have some access to internal affairs investigations and the ability to recommend discipline for high-profile cases. Dominic Gonzales, who has been on the panel since 2007, said having a panel made up of non-officers and non-city employees is valuable.
“With the Citizen Review Panel you had volunteers from the public who were qualified and selected to review this information and in certain cases were able to make recommendations on discipline and critical incidents,” he said.
But activists have criticized the ability of the panel to have any real teeth since it often gets the opportunity to recommend discipline only after an officer has already been disciplined.
Mitchell said she and other criminal justice activists are working on a new citizen oversight model using models from other cities like Minneapolis.
“Although the community in Minnesota has been critical of the Minneapolis model, I would say looking at it compared to what we’ve had, it would be an improvement,” she said. “We’re having a city manager who’s coming from Minneapolis, and I think that he has been working with a system that has greater powers and is more directly involved in investigations than our system has been.”
“We’re at an interesting moment,” she said.