Court Ruling Could Kill the Austin Police Department’s Secret Misconduct File

The G file has its day in court

Photo by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

A Travis County judge is expected to issue a ruling in the Austin Police Oversight Act lawsuit that could have a transformative effect on police accountability and transparency at the Austin Police Department.

Last week, attorneys sparred over the legality of APD using a “G file,” which is a collection of confidential records that some police departments in Texas maintain. Using a G file allows police to keep certain internal investigation records private. At a June 12, the city and attorneys representing Equity Action, the justice advocacy organization that wrote the voter-approved Oversight Act and filed suit against the city for failing to fully implement it, presented arguments over the G file before District Judge Maria Cantú Hexsel.

Part of the purpose of the G file is to keep unsubstantiated complaints against officers from harming their reputations. But critically, the G file can include complaints that were substantiated but that officers were not disciplined for. APD says when this happens, it’s because the officer in question agreed to terms in lieu of formal discipline from the department (like resigning or participating in additional training). Equity Action says the department allows this to happen to shield officers from accountability.

Equity Action’s position has been that since the Oversight Act prohibited a G file, the court should order the city to stop using it. At the June 13 hearing, city attorney Hannah Vahl said the city “welcomes the court’s ruling on how we should proceed” on the G file question, but outlined a few concerns about publicly disclosing records.

Vahl characterized the question as a “high stakes issue” because the city could face “criminal penalties” for disclosing records through the Texas Public Information Act that should be confidential. But, as Equity Action attorney Mike Siegel rebutted, the Oversight Act would only require public disclosure of “true and substantiated charges.” The city could continue to withhold records of complaints that “are not substantiated” or “that would injure a police officer’s confidentiality, privacy, or safety.” The civilian investigators at the Office of Police Oversight, however, would be granted access to any G file records – access they are currently denied but that could improve their ability to hold APD accountable.

Cantú Hexsel has not ruled on the matter as of Wednesday, June 19. If she does rule in Equity Action’s favor, the city would be ordered to stop use of the G file and the parties would continue to argue the remaining claims in the lawsuit.

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G file, Austin Police Department, Austin Police Oversight Act, Equity Action

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