Want Stronger, More Transparent Oversight of APD? Vote on It.

Next month’s election has justice advocates and police fighting for control

photo by John Anderson

The May 6 election is about more than two ordinances named the Austin Police Oversight Act. The election is also about transforming the tug-of-war between justice advocates and the Austin Police Association over what civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department looks like and how it should be maintained.

Twenty years ago, city leaders and the APA negotiated the city's first ever police labor contract, covering oversight, pay, and benefits. Beginning with that first contract, the city has traded better pay (the first contract made Austin police officers the highest-paid in Texas, and they remain among the highest-paid to this day) for stronger civilian oversight.

The two Austin Police Oversight Acts may share the same name and much of the same language, but crucial (yet subtle) differences mean the two ordinances would create very different oversight systems. This chart is not comprehensive; it only considers provisions explicit in each ordinance and not oversight authority that may be restricted by state law or expanded in the police contract.

But for those interested in greater transparency around how APD investigates alleged officer misconduct, the struggle to maintain strong oversight has been constant. With every contract, the city must bargain to maintain whatever oversight was won in the previous negotiation – and pay even more to get new oversight authority.

But now, the May 6 election could fundamentally alter that dynamic.

If voters approve Prop A and reject Prop B, two chapters in the former ordinance would prevent oversight from being used as a bargaining chip in future contract negotiations, while also protecting it from some legal attacks. City Council would not be able to approve any agreement unless it adheres faithfully to the ordinance – especially important are provisions allowing the Office of Police Oversight to have "unfettered access" to police records related to misconduct allegations and to play an active role in APD's internal misconduct investigations. Prop A would also require future contracts to include language protecting these oversight powers from the contract grievance process – so long as OPO does not overstep the authority granted to them in the ordinance.

Prop A includes other critical oversight functions. Anyone could file an anonymous complaint alleging misconduct against an officer; if OPO recommends discipline against an officer and the chief of police – as the only person allowed to discipline officers – disagrees, they would have to explain publicly. The APA views this kind of oversight as an abridgement of an officer's due process rights. Which explains why they, and other organizations affiliated with law enforcement, are the only groups supporting Prop B – an ordinance that, by all appearances, is just an edited version of Prop A that removes all of the parts that police groups dislike. If both propositions pass, each will be implemented, but conflicting portions will likely be resolved in court.

Want to know more? Read Austin Sanders' deeper dive into the ballot propositions and the history of police oversight in Austin that brought us here.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

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Austin Police Department, May 2023 General and Special Elections

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