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With Prop C passage, Council can decide how to oversee police oversight office

Monday, May 3, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Austin voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition C Saturday, paving the way for City Council to change who the director of police oversight reports to – an independent body or Council itself.

According to the unofficial results, 62.9 percent (96,888 people) voted for the measure and 37.1 percent (57,271) voted against it.

The Office of Police Oversight is in charge of reviewing complaints and feedback about police conduct and policies. Director Farah Muscadin currently reports to City Manager Spencer Cronk. 

Backers say the change will enable Council and the community to find a reporting structure that makes the office – and police – more accountable to the public. 

This election, Austin voted for stronger police accountability,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who initially brought the proposition to Council. 

Casar tied the proposition to last summer’s protests against police brutality and racism: “We cannot forget what tens of thousands of Austinites marched and called for last year. Proposition C will help us truly address police misconduct.”

Prop C, largely overshadowed by more contentious ballot measures like the camping ban and strong-mayor proposition, subtly amends the city charter – the rules dictating how Austin’s government is set up – so that the director of police oversight reports to Council, cutting out City Manager Spencer Cronk.

Below is the charter amendment:

Notwithstanding any other provision of this Charter, the city council may provide for a director of police oversight who shall be appointed and may be removed as provided by ordinance. The director shall have such duties, responsibilities, and staff as provided by ordinance, including the responsibility to ensure transparency and accountability as it relates to policing.

City Council will now be able to oversee – as well as hire and fire – the department’s director, or set up a separate accountability structure further removed from Council.

There are a few different models that Council could choose to implement. Casar mentioned examples like New Orleans, whose independent police monitor reports to a citizen board, and Seattle, whose inspector general for public safety reports to City Council. 

“These arrangements can improve transparency and community trust,” Casar said.

The charter amendment proposition received near-unanimous Council support in February, with only Council Member Mackenzie Kelly voting against.

Kelly told the Austin Monitor Sunday that the charter amendment could lead to politicization of the office. “Where before the election there was a layer between Council and the (Office of Police Oversight), this vote removes that layer,” she said. “This opens up the OPO to make decisions based on political pressure where before the election that wasn’t the case.”

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told the Monitor that the union would be fine with City Council oversight, but would not support oversight by an independent commission. “Independent bodies … sometimes aren’t held accountable,” Casaday said.

Casar said that the community will be able to help craft the accountability structure it wants to see. “This charter amendment,” Casar wrote in a City Council Message Board post in February, “opens the door to broader community engagement – it does not close doors.”

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