May 2023 Ballot Measure — Austin Police Oversight Act — Stabilizes and Strengthens Austin’s Civilian Oversight of Police
Equity Action spent the summer 2022 gathering more than 33,000 signatures for a ballot measure that will finally place our police oversight system in law. Our measure was “validated” in September — a “valid petition” has enough signatures to either go on the ballot or be enacted as a local law. On September 15, 2022 Austin City Council voted to put our ordinance on the May 2023 ballot. Volunteer for the campaign!
If you still have questions, maybe our FAQ will answer them!
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.
For instance, despite paying out over $13 million in settlements to victims of police brutality during the 2020 protests, the City of Austin has not disciplined officers, including those indicted by a grand jury, for their conduct during those protests. Nor has the department issued discipline over the more than 100 examples of false arrest and excessive force cited by Kroll this spring after an audit of body camera video.
Anyone in customer service knows that their employer can and will issue discipline for a variety of infractions — maybe a reprimand, maybe they get taken off the schedule for a week, maybe worse. We believe that if officers knew that they’d face discipline for brutality and misconduct, they’d do it less. We believe that if officers knew that facts about police brutality and misconduct would always be made public, they would do it less.
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.
We know that a big reason police aren’t held accountable and more records aren’t made publicly accessible is that much of it is negotiated in a police contract. Over the course of several months in 2021, the police union filed dozens of grievances against the Office of Police Oversight and finally took one to arbitration. The arbitrator’s decision undid many of the gains made in 2017 and 2018, the historic period when City Council voted down a bad police contract and forced a better one.
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 recommend 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. 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. We CAN pass this in Austin in May, and with your help we will!
Community Investment Budget
In collaboration with thirty one endorsing organizations, Equity Action joined in a 2022 Community Investment Budget that asked Austin City Council to commit to prioritizing increased wages for our lowest wage city workers and 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. We’re doing it again in 2023. Help us expand our coalition!
Totaling about $74 million, this proposal represented a set of priorities for about 6% of general revenue and a vision for how the city should move forward in 2022. The coalition push resulted in a major shift in the City Manager baseline budget, including higher wages for civilian employees and new money for emergency rental assistance. At the end of the budget process, allocations for coalition priorities totaled nearly $30 million and the city’s minimum wage lifted to $20/hour, a historic increase.
The City Manager released a better baseline budget, and many of our community priorities got some funding. Unfortunately, the funding was not what we suggested. The levels we suggested were a floor. Low levels of funding would make little difference and can sometimes lead directly to failed programs that are quickly discarded. Our community needs are too great and we must provide meaningful funding.
The coalition priorities continued to make progress as nearly all testimony in the public hearings at City Hall called out support from every district. City Hall ultimately increased the minimum wage from an originally proposed $18/hr in the baseline budget to $20/hr. There was strong support for additional rental assistance and legal assistance for families facing eviction, along with relocation funding for those displaced by development. And in the final hours, the city funded afterschool programs, parent support specialists, park maintenance and much more from our Community Investment Budget.
In 2023, Equity Action intends to build an even bigger Community Investment Budget Coalition and continue to promote long overdue investments in public safety including higher wages for EMS and 911 call takers, a adequately funded forensics lab that is ready and able to accurately conduct DNA testing again (DPS is supposed to return this function to Austin in 2023) and an expanded program of Park Rangers in our 300+ parks.