Community-Built, Community-Driven Oversight?
Austin's activists have got a plan
When the city's police union meet-and-confer agreement expired in December, with it expired language that both provided for the Citizen Review Panel and barred the city from experimenting with any parallel mechanism of community oversight. The coalition of activists who advocated for reforming the contract during negotiations has long held that oversight and transparency shouldn't be a bargaining chip in those talks, but rather standardized as a community benefit. But they had no avenue to change that under the terms of the old deal. In a presentation to the Public Safety Commission on Monday, coalition leaders explained that they want the city to re-enter into negotiations (expected to happen soon) with plans to remove oversight from the contract entirely and establish an independent nonprofit to take over the responsibility of handling, investigations, and recommend discipline for citizen complaints – with the chief of police still having final say.
"We would like to see a community-built, community-driven nonprofit be the front end of the complaint system," explained Kathy Mitchell of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who presented alongside Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Chas Moore and attorney Brian McGiverin. Mitchell referenced the blistering 2016 city auditor's report that found APD's problematic complaint process was hindering the Office of the Police Monitor and discouraging people from reporting incidents of misconduct. A nonprofit created with public input, similar to the Austin/Travis County Sobriety Center, could fundamentally change that complaint process, and nothing in the group's research has suggested moving that part of the complaints process would be in violation of state law.
As for the second half of investigations (traditionally handled by Internal Affairs), the coalition proposes the city move that out of APD and into the hands of a more independent custodian, akin to a city auditor. Mitchell said they're "not wedded to a particular structure," but that removing investigations from IA "creates the kind of trust in the outcome that I think we haven't had before."
Austin Police Association attorney Ron DeLord said essentially that the city can do what it likes, but that the APA will take things "to the courthouse" if the city tries anything the union considers out of bounds. On the idea of moving the investigatory structure out of IA, he said, "I don't know if you can or can't." The coalition has already conceded in a memo delivered last week to the mayor and City Council that the personnel records found within an officer's "g" file would play no role in investigations; those files would remain protected by state law.
As PSC Chair Rebecca Webber noted, there are a lot of legal questions that remain to be answered, and Commissioner Kim Rossmo had concerns about how the nonprofit's board would be selected. Mitchell said the coalition would prefer to let community engagement decide whether those positions would be simply appointed by Council or through a vote. "We aren't predisposed to anything," Moore added. "We have this board, they can come up with this yearlong process and what it looks like, and we'll see how it plays out from there."