The petitioners — led by Chris Harris, a local progressive activist focused on efforts such as clamping down on how the Austin Police Department (APD) operates — collected 33,000 signatures to send the petition before the Austin City Council. If the council approves, the proposed ordinance will be placed on the May ballot.
Under current city code and the police labor agreement, the OPO is only allowed to field external complaints about police conduct and may access interviews and other evidence after the Internal Affairs department completes its investigation.
The petition aims to expand the OPO’s capabilities to:
- Participate in active investigations of officer conduct with the right to gather evidence and directly interview witnesses
- Conduct preliminary investigations of complaints and determine whether it warrants a full investigation
- Expands the amount of evidence and data the organization may obtain, including body and dash cameras and the HALO street cameras
- Act as a central depository for all police conduct-related documentation
- Determine the training requirements for a new Community Police Review Commission that will, among other things, recommend discipline for officers accused of misconduct
The proposition also changes the person responsible for appointing the OPO director from the city manager to “the City,” which may include either the city manager or the city council.
One of the last provisions places a “ban on agreements that contradict police oversight policy.” That is pertinent as the current Austin Police Association labor contract with the city does not allow the OPO free reign access to any investigations and documents it wants. The city and the police union are currently in negotiations for the next labor contract.
That provision is an attempt to set an automatic limit on what can be negotiated into the coming labor deal.
“We believe police shouldn’t police themselves and Austin police — like most major departments — require external oversight to ensure accountability,” Equity Action ATX, the group behind the proposition, says on its website.
Earlier this year, the OPO and its director Farah Muscadin were found by a third party arbitrator to have violated its authority laid out in the current labor contract. The arbitrator ordered Muscadin and the OPO to cease and desist from:
- Investigating complaints
- Interviewing or contacting witnesses
- Following up with a complainant for clarification purposes
- Tampering with interview questions
- Demanding certain interview questions be asked
- Influencing whether a complaint is investigated
- Threatening individual officers
Equity Action criticized this ruling, saying, “The arbitrator’s decision undid many of the gains made in 2017 and 2018, the historic period when City Council voted down a bad police contract and forced a better one.”
The current police contract, including the grants and restrictions it placed on the OPO’s authority, was approved by all parties, including progressive activists who had such a large role in the negotiations that they managed to kill the contract’s first version.
In an email to Austin Police Association (APA) members, APA President Thomas Villarreal didn’t mince words with the proposition.
“The real issue here is that a handful of people want to control what oversight looks like in Austin, Texas,” he said. “Instead, we should allow all stakeholders to talk about what is best for OUR community. We have the most robust oversight in the entire State of Texas, and it’s been a part of our police department for over 20 years.”
“The same crowd who believe that officers are hiding behind a veil of ‘police secrecy and impunity’ sat in favor of our current contract language in 2018.”
He added that there is a litany of legal issues this petition could run into, and further said that city attorneys “believe that there are issues with the language of the petition as it is written.”
The broader consequence of this petition is that it could conflict with state law, specifically Local Government Code Chapter 143 which aims to “secure efficient fire and police departments composed of capable personnel who are free from political influence and who have permanent employment tenure as public servants.”
That section of code lays out the array of protections — whether it’s compensation, promotion, or general employment — police officers in Texas have along with the general constitution of municipal police departments.
Municipalities may hold an election to repeal this section of code, the passage of which would void the provision’s effect in that specific city. That would make police officers more like standard, at-will city employees rather than employees of the department.
While Austin is a home-rule city — one with its own charter and not only adherent to state general law — it is ultimately a creation of the State of Texas and is thus subject to state law.
The conflict comes into play if the ordinance is adopted either by the council or by a May vote without also repealing Chapter 143 from application to the City of Austin.
The Austin City Council now has 10 days to decide whether to pass it as an ordinance or send it to the ballot.
A copy of the police oversight ballot measure can be found below.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.