The Austin Police Oversight Act (APOA) creates a local ordinance that strengthens the external civilian oversight of Austin police, greatly improves the transparency of Austin police, and mandates that the City can only approve a police contract if it complies with this ordinance.
What are the goals of the Austin Police Oversight Act?
- Deter police brutality and misconduct by better ensuring that this behavior becomes known to the community and results in on-the-job discipline.
- Create a consistent oversight and transparency system that the Austin Police Association can’t keep weakening through contract negotiations and grievances.
- Stop the Austin Police Association from using our civil rights as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations for more pay.
How does the Austin Police Oversight Act strengthen oversight?
- Empowers the City’s Office of Police Oversight (OPO) to access all police records, gather evidence and interview witnesses. The current Austin police contract explicitly prohibits the OPO or anyone other than police from gathering evidence or interviewing witnesses, and this language was used to overturn the powers of our existing system. The APOA ensures that not only will the OPO have access to all of the police records they need, it will allow the OPO to ensure that all legitimate complaints are investigated thoroughly and in a timely manner.
- Empowers the OPO to make discipline recommendations that drive transparency. While state law requires the Police Chief to continue to make the decision about whether to reprimand, suspend or fire an officer, the APOA will allow the OPO to make a recommendation that the Police Chief must respond to publicly.
- Empowers the Community Police Review Commission (CPRC) to access and share information more freely. The CPRC is a group of civilians that are not city employees that have the ability to provide oversight of Austin police, but the current Austin police contract severely restricts their access to information, limiting their effectiveness. The APOA lets members directly access the information they need using secure remote online access so they can spend more time with the material. It expands their jurisdiction to include cases related to false criminal charges (a problem identified by consultants hired by the city in a 2021 report) and discrimination. It clarifies that they cannot publicly release confidential information, which must me identified as such by staff, but they can speak generally about their work.
How does the Austin Police Oversight Act improve transparency?
- Ends the practice of keeping police personnel records secret forever. The current Austin police contract keeps secret forever all records related to conduct that is NOT disciplined. This provides an incentive for the police department to NOT discipline officers, even when warranted, in order to keep the records about the incident secret. Under the APOA, the accessibility of these personnel records would align with Sheriff departments and most other police departments, which do not have the super-secret “G-file”.
- Empowers the OPO to make discipline recommendations that drive transparency. While state law requires the Police Chief to continue to make the decision about whether to reprimand, suspend, or fire an officer, the APOA will allow the OPO to make a recommendation that the Police Chief must respond to publicly.
- Ensures that the OPO and the CPRC can access all of the police records they require. Both entities that provide oversight of the Austin police currently struggle to consistently access the police records they need in a timely manner due to the Austin police contract and policies. The APOA ensures the OPO and CPRC members have direct access to information and facilitates their work.
How does stronger oversight and improved transparency increase accountability?
Strengthened oversight helps ensure that legitimate complaints are investigated thoroughly and quickly enough to result in discipline, when warranted. Before the OPO lost its access to information and right to conduct fact-finding about complaints, it screened out many complaints that did not involve policy violations up front. Meanwhile, when it recommended a complaint for investigation or other action, the office could make sure action was taken. Today, almost no complaints from Austin residents result in discipline. Even when an investigation occurs, only other police officers can conduct them, and long delays can lead to technical dismissals because the “180 deadline” has passed. By ensuring better investigations into allegations against police, strong oversight increases police accountability.
When the OPO recommends discipline based on the facts and policy violations, information about the incident can be released even if the Chief issues no discipline. Currently, secrecy creates a disincentive to issue discipline. If the Chief chooses not to discipline, information about the incident remains confidential. Incidents of misconduct where no discipline was issued include dozens of incidents of excessive force and false criminal charges identified by Kroll, an outside consultant who audited body camera video. Also all the protest cases, and nearly all of the thousands of individual complaints filed with the city. While formal discipline in the form of a reprimand, suspension or firing is the primary form of accountability, transparency will facilitate better decisions and increase trust in the system. It’s much more difficult to maintain a system of impunity if all of the information sees the light of day.
How does increasing accountability deter police brutality and misconduct?
If officers know that they’ll face discipline for brutality and misconduct, our hope is that they’ll do it less. If officers know that facts about brutality and misconduct will always be made public, our hope is that they’ll do it less.
Does the Austin Police Oversight Act reduce due process for officers?
- Officers will no longer be able to file grievances against the Office of Police Oversight and the Civilian Review Panel.
- Officers will continue to have their full appeal rights with respect to the decision of the Chief about their conduct. The Chief is the decision maker and manager of the Internal Affairs process. The Civilian agency and panel are merely advisory. Fact finding activities and advisory recommendation should not be subject to grievance.
- Grievances against the civilian oversight system take up enormous staff and Director time that should be focused on fact-finding and research, and have been used (especially in the case of the December 2021 arbitration decision) to undermine the oversight system and restrict its purview.
How does the Austin Police Oversight Act decouple civil rights from police pay?
Prior to any City Council action to approve any proposed agreement affecting Austin Police Department personnel, the City Attorney shall certify whether or not the proposed contract is consistent with and fulfills each provision of the APOA.
If the City Attorney finds that a proposed agreement violates the APOA, the City Council won’t be able to vote to adopt the agreement. This ordinance does not void any contract in effect at the time it goes into effect.