The proposal would outline more authority the Office of Police Oversight (OPO) — run by Director Farah Muscadin since 2018 — to conduct investigations into officer misconduct and gather evidence, something the office cannot currently do as part of the city’s police labor contract.
Before the first of the year, Muscadin was found to have violated the contract’s terms by acting outside its delegated authority. But the activists behind the proposition aim to empower the OPO even more, especially as the city and Austin Police Association negotiate the next labor contract.
The council could have adopted the proposal as an ordinance — like what happened in 2019 when prohibitions on homeless camping and lying were eliminated — but shot it down by a vote of 7 to 4. Mayor Steve Adler joined Council Members Alison Alter, Mackenzie Kelly, Leslie Pool, Pio Renteria, Kathie Tovo, and Chito Vela in voting against the proposition.
Petition gatherers collected 33,000 signatures to put it before the council, who could either adopt it outright or send it to the May 2023 ballot. They chose the latter.
“Police violence apologists rejoice today thanks to Mayor Adler,” Chris Harris, policy director at the Austin Justice Coalition (AJC), tweeted after the vote. Harris was one of the chief circulators of the petition that the council voted on.
“He limited testimony, reneged on letting 2 police violence victims speak — incl[uding] Justin Howell — and lied about supporting the oversight he HUSTLED to stall. He’ll soon lack the power to atone for his deceit.”
Harris is one of the foremost figures among the group of advocates pushing the “reimagine policing” policies, who’s been praised previously by Adler.
“Your involvement continues to be very constructive and helpful and for that, I remain very appreciative,” the mayor said in a 2019 email to Harris. “I’ll need your continuing help, leadership, and teaching.”
That he’s breaking so harshly and publicly with the mayor who’s pushed for some of the most significant progressive policy reforms Austin has ever seen is no small event.
Harris’ colleague Chas Moore — founder and executive director of the AJC — was also critical of the outcome and Adler’s vote, stopped short of endorsing the rest of Harris’ message.
Regarding Harris’ comment, Moore told The Texan, “I agree with the first line. Not sure I agree with the latter.”
He said further in a social media post, “While some activists, journalists, and members of the police department consider this a loss for the “police watchdogs”…I wholeheartedly disagree. It just means we have a lot of more work to do.”
Moore and his allies successfully torpedoed the first rendition of a police labor contract in 2017 and secured the creation of the OPO in the eventually-finalized version currently in place. The OPO replaced the Office of the Police Monitor and was given more authority than its predecessor, although not as much as the “reimagining” activists currently prefer.
About this petition, Moore added that he believes Adler and other members of the council were “legit worried about the governor retaliating during the legislature.”
Consideration of this petition also dredged up substantial concern among council members about its legality.
It may conflict with Texas Local Government Code Chapter 143, a provision Austin adopted that lays out employment protections police are awarded by the state. If it passes, a legal fight will surely begin. Vela, who voted against adopting the ordinance outright, said, “I think 85 percent of it will survive legal challenge. And there’s a severability clause for the most questionable parts.”
During Thursday’s meeting, the council also adopted a resolution from Council Member Kelly to reinstate the license plate reader program that was scrapped in 2020. Kelly pushed for the program’s reinstatement, which retains data for 30 days, as a measure to aid police in locating criminals on the run.
Last month, Adler delivered his final State of the City address as mayor. In it, he touted the “disruption” his office facilitated, including the “police reimagination” marked most significantly by the $150 million budget cut and redirection of 2020. He also succeeded in defeating a ballot proposition last November that aimed to set a minimum staffing requirement for the Austin Police Department (APD) — which has long struggled with attrition.
Regardless, this petition now sets the stage for a third-round fight between the progressive activists and pro-police opposition such as Save Austin Now, a Republican and Democrat-run group founded first to oppose the 2019 camping ordinance.
“Save Austin Now supports reasonable oversight of our police department,” wrote Save Austin Now co-founders Cleo Petricek and Matt Mackowiak in a statement. “But that’s not what this ordinance is.”
“Radical activists in Austin who have undermined our police department for more than three years have now placed on the ballot an ordinance that is illegal, unconstitutional, would allow felons to view classified information as part of the oversight board, does not require oversight board appointees to have experienced a police ride along or be a subject matter expert, would violate collectively bargained civil service protections for APD employees, would lead to the early release of personal information that will jeopardize active investigations and increase security risk for officers, and would layer over the police chief of the 11th largest city in America.”
Save Austin Now won the initial ballot battle in May 2021 to reinstate the camping and lying prohibition handily, but then Harris and Moore won the next bout a few months later, defeating the police staffing proposition just as soundly.
This proposition now moves to the May ballot. By then, Adler will be out of office, and it’ll be his successor’s to deal with.
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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.