Austin voters could vote on the Austin Police Oversight Act during November elections.
According to Equity Action, the group proposing the act, the act would improve transparency and strengthen the oversight of the Austin Police Department.
The APOA was submitted to the City Clerk's Office on Aug. 8 with 33,000 signatures, which is 13,000 more than the minimum needed to put the act on the ballot.
If passed, this proposition would mandate that police contracts can only be approved by the city if they include transparency measures, such as unsealing certain personnel records, maintaining access for the Office of Police Oversight and being in line with oversight guidelines established in the act, according to Equity Acton's FAQ sheet.
“We renegotiate our police oversight system every few years. That makes no sense and it hasn’t been working. Instead of a stable system of accountability, the city simply pays out millions in civil settlements without admitting any fault. That’s why over 33,000 Austinites signed this petition.” said Kathy Mitchell, treasurer for Equity Action, in a press release.
Mitchell told Community Impact Newspaper through past contract negotiations and a 2021 arbitration that spurred from debates in December 2021 between the Austin Police Association and the Austin Police Department on whether the OPO had the right to look into internal affairs claims, the OPO's power has been limited, which the act aims to address.
"It's urgent now because of December, but it's also urgent because of the budget. And it's urgent because it's time to do something different. And if we lock in a new police contract on the same old track, we won't be doing anything different for another four years," Mitchell said.
As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, out of Texas' largest cities, Austin has the lowest voter counts needed for a petition to be raised to the City Clerk’s Office so City Council can vote whether to put it on the ballot with only 5% or 20,000 signatures needed for a proposition to be presented to City Council.
“This incredible effort speaks to the commitment of Austin voters for a more accountable, transparent police department. ... This ordinance seeks to prevent police brutality based on a simple premise: If officers knew they’d face discipline for brutality and misconduct, they’d do it less,” Chris Harris, Equity Action board member, said in a press release.
In the same press release, Harris said APD uses oversight and accountability as bargaining chips; however, Ken Casaday, the president of the Austin Police Association, disagrees.
“I would say no other police department in the state does that. They might think we do that, but fire unions and police unions and big cities all over the state have bargaining rights, and some of them are paid just like we are, so I don't think that [is] ... really accurate,” Casaday said.
According to Equity Action’s FAQ sheet, the APOA would deter police misconduct and brutality through discipline and making the numbers surrounding police brutality and misconduct public, which Equity Action hopes will decrease the amount of incidents.
Transparency would be improved through making police personnel records operate under the same rules that sheriff and other police departments use instead of keeping them “secret forever.”
The APOA would strengthen oversight, according to Equity Action, through giving the OPO the ability to interview witnesses, access police records and gather evidence for internal affairs investigations.
Casaday said currently, APD is the only police department in the state that has a full-time staff that has “unfettered access to internal affairs investigations.”
Casaday said there is a potential if the APOA is passed, it will go to court for breaking state law.
“We're very confident that this ever gets in front of a courtroom in the state of Texas that it will be either totally thrown out or portions of it. So to us it's a clear violation of state law,” Casaday said.
Mitchell said she looks forward to seeing any potential legal arguments that Casaday has for the APOA.
"We have a lot of lawyers," Mitchell said. "I look forward to to his legal arguments. And we believe this is going to pass, and so we are prepared for that conversation."