Austin officials on Sept. 21 formally asked to move the implementation of several voter-approved police oversight measures forward while the city contends with a new legal opinion that may expand the policies' reach.

What happened

In a 10-1 vote, City Council approved a resolution from Council Member Zo Qadri that he said is intended to ensure the city follows through on the will of Austin voters who overwhelmingly passed Proposition A, or the Austin Police Oversight Act, this May.

Qadri said the council direction was needed as several pieces of the oversight framework had yet to be fully rolled out months after the election and to address views that certain portions of the new city code may not be workable under state law.

Those issues were raised as processes related to police officer investigations and records disclosure can be linked to meet and confer agreements between cities and police labor groups. Since their previous contract expired, Austin and the Austin Police Association are neither under contract nor negotiating a new deal; council members dismissed a proposed four-year contract earlier this year.

“Since the passage of Prop A, the city has been parsing through how to enact provisions of Prop A legally without any contract. There have been many questions from the community and stakeholders seeking clarification on this process, and reasons why full implementation of Prop A has not yet occurred,” Qadri said before the council vote. “This resolution that we’re bringing forward today serves a purpose of detailing and implementing provisions of Prop A that can be legally done—and I want to stress the word legally—done, without a meet and confer agreement.”

The details

With the passage of Qadri's resolution, city management is now directed to oversee several updates related to Austin's Office of Police Oversight, including:
  • Allowing the office to conduct initial investigations of police officers following a complaint, regardless of whether the grievance is submitted anonymously
  • Getting OPO staff new criminal justice certifications so they can quickly access police records, such as body camera footage, for investigations
  • Having the OPO maintain its own records as a “central depository” for documentation of police oversight and discipline
  • Allowing the OPO to contact complainants through the investigation process
  • Setting up public forums for OPO staff to present data and address the community about their work
Council's vote was celebrated by leaders with Equity Action, the political criminal justice organization behind the Austin Police Oversight Act and Proposition A campaign.

“With a 10-1 vote, Council and the Mayor directed the City Manager to finally create the independent fact finding processes required by Prop A,” Equity Action board President Alycia Castillo said in a statement. “Effective civilian oversight relies on non-police being empowered to make sure that all the cases deserving of an investigation receive one, and that meaningful, thorough investigations occur.”

Diving in deeper

City officials started off Sept. 21 with only Qadri's resolution to consider in relation to Austin's oversight processes. However, the city ended up receiving a legal opinion from the office of the Texas attorney general in the middle of the council meeting that may change the outlook for Proposition A's effects.

In response to a recent public information request, Austin officials had sought to block the release of information about a police officer, citing state rules about internal personnel files. City lawyers asked the attorney general's office to confirm they'd be able to keep that information confidential.

Austin claimed it could withhold the records under a section of Texas Local Government Code allowing local police and fire departments to keep their own private records—known as “g-files” for their namesake Section 143.089(g)—of employee commendations, discipline and performance reviews.

While g-files are typically exempt from disclosure, the opinion from the attorney general's records division stated Austin lawyers said the city doesn't keep g-files and therefore couldn't block the records' release.

What's next

After council members emerged from a closed executive session called to discuss that ruling, Mayor Kirk Watson said officials intend to get more information on the topic but may now “do more than was anticipated” under Qadri's resolution, Item 99 on council's Sept. 21 agenda, in the near future.

"While 99 as it’s written may pass today, I would anticipate that once there’s clarity and understanding, we would be back with another resolution that goes further than what this is,” Watson said before the vote.

Qadri said he intends to craft a follow-up proposal in the wake of the update.

“With the new AG ruling, there’s a lot of moving pieces,” he said. “Our office is looking forward to bringing forward another item when we get more clarity; whether that’s in the coming weeks or coming months, I’m not sure. It’s an evolving situation, but we want to see this through.”

In a statement, a city spokesperson said staff is still evaluating what the legal ruling means for Austin.

“The City received notice from the Attorney General’s office regarding release of Austin Police Department confidential material sought through Public Information Requests. We have been operating with the understanding that State Law Chapter 143 provides for the withholding of such material. The AG has indicated the material can be released given the new City Ordinance (Prop A). We are seeking clarification from the AG’s Office regarding the scope of its ruling,” the spokesperson said.

Quotes of note

“While closing the g-file represents an increase in transparency for Austin police, it also just applies the same standards for the public release of records that already exist at DPS, at the Travis County Sheriff, and at hundreds of other Texas law enforcement agencies. None of these agencies suffer from an excess of transparency,” Equity Action Treasurer Rebecca Webber said in a statement.

“This is a really difficult item, and in light of the new information that we received and because Version 2 came out yesterday very late in the day, I’ve not had enough time to speak to my constituents fully regarding this item. ... I cannot in good faith vote in favor of it with such little time to consider the implications,” Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said of her vote against Qadri's Item 99.