Community Investment Budget

In collaboration with forty endorsing organizations, Equity Action joined in a 2023 Community Investment Budget. We asked Austin City Council to commit to prioritizing inflation wage increases for city workers, higher wages to secure recruitment at EMS, emergency rental assistance to prevent evictions of those seeing untenable rent increases, social services for those already unhoused, increased park staffing, and much more.

Totaling about $100 million, this proposal represented a set of priorities for about 7.7% of general revenue and a vision for how the city should move forward in 2023. The coalition push in 2022 resulted in a major shift in the City Manager baseline budget, including higher wages for civilian employees and new money for emergency rental assistance. This year we expected Council and the Mayor to carefully review this proposal, created collaboratively with so many of our Austin community organizations, and urge the City Manager to fund these priorities in the baseline budget. While Council supported our priorities, the City Manager gave Council a proposed budget that spent available new money on the police department and higher reserves. This left little for Council to work with.

See the full proposal here.

So Equity Action built an even bigger Community Investment Budget Coalition and promoted long overdue investments in public safety including higher wages for EMS and 911 call takers, an expanded program of Park Rangers in our 300+ parks, E-books for our library system to encourage reading in the digital generation and much more. Meanwhile in May, 2023 the City Manager issued expense and revenue projections designed to discourage our elected officials from continued investments like these. The city’s Chief Financial Officer put “Living Wage” on the unfunded “wish list” while proposing that the city would add 190 police officer positions that cannot possibly be filled in the coming fiscal year under any scenario. In the end, with pressure from the Community Investment Budget Coalition, new money for the police department was significantly reduced but not eliminated, some CIB items were funded, and the City Manager created a new “budget reconciliation” process that will start soon and could fund more CIB priorities IF we participate! Or it could defund many of our important gains in favor of police, courts and jails once again.

The Austin Police Oversight Act is now the law, or is it?

Equity Action has sued the City of Austin for failure to create the oversight system passed overwhelmingly by voters in May of 2023. Although it passed with nearly 80% of voters in support, and a watered down version backed by the police association failed by an even greater margin, the City of Austin has not implemented the law. Seven months have passed. Council has twice directed City Staff to implement the new law. Instead of greater accountability, it seems Austin has less accountability and less transparency than before. After a representative from the City Legal Department announced in a public meeting that the City had no intention of enacting certain critical provisions, we felt we had no more choice. We have tried everything else.

A major issue — as described in the Austin Chronicle in December 2023 — is the “g file,” an optional secret file maintained by the police department into which go all records of actions that do not result in a suspension. Which is of course almost all of them, regardless of whether policy was violated or people were harmed. Most police departments do NOT have a g-file and operate just fine. The Public Information Act in multiple exceptions to disclosure protects material related to invalid allegations. No police departments without a g-file have an excess of transparency. But in agencies with a g-file, secrecy creates an incentive against appropriate discipline. Conduct that results in a suspension becomes public, so lesser or no discipline at all may be preferred. The Austin Police Oversight Act declares that Austin shall not have one, and yet we still do.

Equity Action spent the summer 2022 gathering more than 33,000 signatures for a ballot measure that finally empowered our existing police oversight system. Our signatures were “validated” in September 2022 and the Austin City Council voted to put our ordinance on the May 2023 ballot. Despite a deceptive campaign by the police association to put a second ordinance — one with the same name, nearly the same caption, but very different content — on the same May ballot, voters overwhelmingly (80%/20%) voted FOR the REAL Austin Police Oversight Act and AGAINST the deceptive, disempowered version.

Find our Austin Police Oversight Explainer here!

If you still have questions, maybe our FAQ will answer them!

Full text of the new law here!

We believe that police brutality and misconduct are wrong and that police officers found to have done so should be appropriately disciplined, even if the act is not a crime. We know that police brutality and misconduct continue to be serious problems in the City of Austin, in part because too often police in Austin aren’t held accountable.

Now that must change.

The Austin Police Oversight Act gives the Office of Police Oversight (a city department reporting to the City Manager) unfettered access to the information it needs to review the facts of a complaint about police conduct, determine whether a full investigation is warranted and recommend next steps. The Director can also recommend the level of discipline, but the Office is merely advisory with respect to discipine. The final decision remains with the Chief.

The Office of Police Oversight will also become a repository of documents related to police conduct — including force data and public filings in lawsuits against the City over police conduct. A new consultant report estimated that lawsuits over police conduct have cost the city $70 million in recent years. Its time to shine light on the problem and fix it.

We believe police shouldn’t police themselves and Austin police — like most major departments — require external oversight to ensure accountability. We believe more records about police brutality and misconduct should become publicly accessible and records should no longer be permanently sealed — at least to the same extent that officer conduct records are public at the Sheriff’s department or DPS. But the police contract has always given police in Austin special rights, and for decades has failed to secure a strong and effective oversight system.

That’s why we created the Austin Police Oversight Act. It sets out what our oversight system can do and prevents a police contract from undermining it. For example, the new ordinance will give the Office of Police Oversight:

  • unfettered access to body/dash camera video and 911 call audio,
  • the ability to pose questions to witnesses
  • the ability to identify additional witnesses who might have relevant information
  • the right to determine whether an incident needs a full investigation based on its review of the evidence, and then participate in that investigation.

The Office of Police Oversight should be “eyes on the process” throughout the process and ensure that conduct that violates policy is met with appropriate discipline. Civilian oversight systems like the one we propose work to improve accountability in cities all across America. It is so common that there is a national association of civilian oversight systems and a detailed history about what has worked. Our Act is based on a careful evaluation of such models as well as the historic role the OPO has played in Austin in recent years.

The City recently claimed to have implemented 82% of the new law. It reached that assessment by redrafting the provisions, then claiming to have accomplished the reworked requirements. It claims to have almost completely implemented City Council’s most recent directive, known as Item 99, related to the new law by doing the same. Here is our side by side of Item 99’s requirements and the city’s rewritten provisions. And here is our side by side of the portions of the Austin Police Oversight Act where the City has claimed compliance by redrafting the requirements.