City Council Could Finally Compel City to Implement Police Oversight Law
Resolution would tell city to stop dragging feet
By Austin Sanders,
6:05AM, Thu. Sep. 21, 2023
Four months after Austin voters approved the Austin Police Oversight Act, critical components of the law still have not been implemented.
But a City Council resolution, authored by Council Member Zo Qadri and co-sponsored by CMs Ryan Alter, Vanessa Fuentes, and Chito Vela, could finally change that.
The resolution directs Interim City Manager Jesús Garza to take a range of actions intended to enact two of the most critical components of the APOA. One would ensure the Office of Police Oversight staff has direct access to records held by the Austin Police Department, which OPO needs to investigate officer misconduct alleged by the public. The second would ensure that OPO can conduct “preliminary review” of complaints.
Preliminary review involves basic fact-finding by OPO staff, like review of body-worn camera footage, incident reports, and other materials, all of which help OPO determine if they should recommend Internal Affairs launch a formal investigation into the complaint. The city contends that, before preliminary review can occur, state law mandates that the person alleging misconduct must first sign a sworn affidavit attesting to the true nature of their complaint.
Equity Action, the justice advocacy organization that wrote the APOA and has been fighting for its implementation, has a different interpretation of the law – that preliminary investigations should be happening into every complaint, without requiring an affidavit. Qadri and his co-sponsors agree; the resolution directs Garza to ensure OPO staff “immediately begin to conduct a preliminary investigation for all complaints.”
As of now, it is clear OPO is not conducting preliminary review. In September, OPO responded to questions from Qadri’s office in a memo obtained by the Chronicle, writing “to date, OPO has not conducted any fact finding independent of APD.” If Internal Affairs decides to investigate a complaint, OPO staff then can participate by reviewing evidence related to the incident and by suggesting questions for IA detectives to ask during interviews with officers under investigation. According to a Sept. 18 staff memo, complainants provided sworn affidavits for 56 complaints between April 1 and Aug. 31 (members of the public filed at least 219 other complaints that OPO did not investigate). Other than scant investigative work, OPO staff are also engaged in policy research, like reforms to the Austin Police Academy, and conduct community outreach, including engagement sessions preceding APD’s adoption of the new Automated License Plate Reader program.
The resolution would also require monthly public “check-in” meetings for the city to provide updates on progress they’ve made on implementing the APOA by sharing the number of complaints filed each month, along with how many undergo preliminary review and how many Internal Affairs subsequently investigated.
“[Interim City Manager Jesús] Garza clearly has not wanted to implement the APOA,” Equity Action’s Kathy Mitchell told us. “We’re months in and it’s been nothing but backsliding. Now, it’s time for Council to embrace their policy role. The voters voted for the APOA to become law and Council must now ensure the will of the voters is implemented.”
Council is set to vote on the resolution today, Sept. 21.