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Police reform activists call for city-funded nonprofit for police complaints

Tuesday, February 6, 2018 by Jack Craver

Representatives of Austin’s police union said Monday that they’re eager to begin negotiations with the new city manager on a contract that can hopefully win approval from City Council.

Ron DeLord, an attorney for the Austin Police Association, told members of the Public Safety Commission that the union had put together a new negotiation team, about half of whose members were not included in the last round of negotiations, which concluded with a contract that Council unanimously rejected in December.

Because that contract was rejected, Austin police officers have been working without a union contract in the weeks since. Their working conditions, including the disciplinary measures the city can take in response to misconduct, are instead determined by state law.

As a result, certain oversight mechanisms that the city had in place but which are not specified in state law, including the Citizen Review Panel, have been suspended.

DeLord reiterated that the union was not against putting the Citizen Review Panel or other accountability measures back in place. The union is ready to bargain over such measures with city management, he said.

“We’re prepared to start whenever the city is ready and has some direction from their bosses on Council,” said DeLord.

At the same meeting, representatives of police reform groups unveiled a proposal for a nonprofit to receive citizen complaints about police misconduct. The organization would be independent of the city and would conduct preliminary investigations of complaints received from members of the public about police officers. If it found the complaints to have merit, it would forward its findings to the city.

“We believe that legally, if we took the citizen review process out of the contract and just let it be a community-driven thing, that’s one way to strengthen the process,” said Chas Moore, president of the Austin Justice Coalition.

In addition, the groups propose that formal investigations of police officers, currently conducted by the internal affairs unit within the Austin Police Department, be reassigned to the Office of the City Auditor.

“It is time to pull investigations out of the Police Department and create a true, independent civilian-staffed investigation system that people can trust,” says a memo from the Justice Coalition.

The organizations also argue that Council could fund both initiatives with the $10 million that it saved by not approving the police contract, which included pay raises for officers. A portion of that money should cover the new positions in the city auditor’s office as well as a grant to the yet-to-be-established nonprofit.

Asked what he thought about the concept of an independent nonprofit, DeLord said he wasn’t sure how a nonprofit that is separate from the city would have any real investigative power. He noted, however, that any group is free to receive complaints.

“I could sit out here and take complaints with a cardboard box,” he said.

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, who in December criticized Council for rejecting the police contract, said that the concept of nonprofits dealing with complaints about cops is hardly new; his own group receives police conduct complaints regularly. But that should not free the city of its obligation to put in place its own system to hold officers accountable, he said.

Commissioner Kim Rossmo also cast doubt on how an independent nonprofit would have any “democratic accountability.” Who would select the members of the board, he asked.

Kathy Mitchell of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition said that those details have yet to be determined, and she predicted that the process of putting together the organization’s framework would take a year. She anticipated, among other things, that there would be calls for the police union to have a seat at the table.

“We’re prepared for that conversation,” she said.

Photo by ann harkness made available through a Creative Commons license.

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