On Sept. 21, officials will vote on a resolution from Council Member Zo Qadri, who said he's bringing it to ensure the new police oversight updates are carried out in the wake of the May election.
“We saw the will of the voters, since that time, not really heard,” Qadri said. “And I think it’s really important as we look to build trust with our constituents is to make sure the election that happened is listened to.”
The oversight item, Proposition A, passed by a 4-1 margin. However, some provisions related to police records and investigations might run afoul of state rules; they wouldn't be fully implemented unless included in the next contract agreed to by the city and and the Austin Police Association.
Proposition A was promoted by the criminal justice political group Equity Action. Chris Harris, an organizer and member of its leadership team, said he believes most of the new policies can be carried out without a new contract.
He added remaining concerns over how far changes at the Austin Office of Police Oversight have gone since the election could now be addressed through the resolution, Item 99 on council's Sept. 21 agenda.
“We understand there are some parts of it that require an agreement with the police association. But there are a lot of parts of Prop A that don’t require an agreement; they can be implemented today legally under state law,” he said. “That’s what Item 99 is really aimed at: What is it that the city could and should be doing under the law that it’s currently not doing to comply with Prop A?”
How we got here
Last year, Equity Action ran a successful petition drive for its Austin Police Oversight Act that landed the measure on the May ballot as Proposition A. It went on to pass in a landslide this spring and became effective in mid-May.
A separate but similarly worded item drafted by an APA-funded group also earned a place on the ballot following a successful petition but went on to fail at the polls with 80% opposition.
Proposition A was intended to solidify the authority of the OPO, although some its contents can only go into effect through a meet-and-confer agreement between the city and the APA.
Both sides have yet to return to the bargaining table to hash out a new contract since council dismissed a four-year agreement earlier this year and instead approved a stopgap one-year pay and benefits deal.
In line with several of the new provisions in Austin's code, Qadri resolution calls on city management to ensure the OPO:
- Conducts initial investigations into all complaints against officers as allowed—including direct interviews of officers—and publishes those complaints and any related disciplinary records online
- Moves anonymous complaints forward for investigation
- Communicates with anyone who submits a complaint to keep them updated on the process
- Keeps its own public records to serve as a “central depository for documentation” as required under the new law
- Trains its staff for the criminal justice certification needed to access certain records held by the Austin Police Department
“I’m disappointed that it didn’t get implemented out of the gate. I think that’s a disservice to the advocates and folks in the community who went out and voted. So not exactly sure specifically why there has been such a lag; the election was in May, and we are now in September,” he said. “We want to bring this forward, ... keeping everything as kosher and allowable as possible and making sure that these things are implemented.”
A community working group to keep tabs on the OPO and officer complaints is also requested. Qadri said that group's work could eventually be taken over by the Community Police Review Commission, a resident body whose authority is laid out in the oversight act, once a new police contract is in place.
Ahead of council's vote, interim OPO Director Gail McCant said the OPO has already made several changes since the May election.
In a memo, she said the OPO has updated its operating procedures to align with the oversight act and is working with city lawyers to establish the record depository called for in the code. She also said the office is working to hire new staff, including investigators, and has already set up a new system for anonymous complaints.
What they're saying
Qadri's measure earned initial support from several other council members who said they agree the police oversight act should be as effective as possible given current constraints.
Council Member Ryan Alter said gray areas in state law as well as the relationship between the OPO and the APD have led to the challenges in implementation so far. He said passing the new directives would clearly state council's policy opinion to help advance the process.
“It is always our goal to deliver what the voters asked for, and we are trying,” he said. “It’s sometimes more challenging than it would seem on paper, but I think we’re going to get there. I think we’re headed in the right direction, and this will help us take one more step forward.”
In a statement, Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said the move is needed for the city to decisively follow through on the election results.
“In May, thousands of Austinites made their voices heard and passed the Austin Police Oversight Act. However, its implementation has been a slow, drawn-out process. To this day, the Office of Police Oversight still lacks sufficient access and support in reviewing complaints of police misconduct,” she said in the statement. “Supporting Item 99 follows the will of the voters and brings us closer to the police oversight and transparency Austinites overwhelmingly support.”
Given the broad public support for the changes, Harris said he believes it's also important for Austin's police oversight policies to clear another hurdle given the challenges and resistance the concepts have encountered over the years.
“It just shows the immense barriers that exist to even just very common-sense police reforms and not just to getting them, but to maintaining them," he said.
By the numbers
Between April 1 and Aug. 31, McCant said her office received:
- 275 complaints against APD officers
- 72 compliments of police officers
To file a complaint against an APD officer, to thank a police officer or to review documents related to officer investigations, visit the OPO's website.