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Equity Action submits police oversight petition ahead of November election

Wednesday, August 10, 2022 by Emma Freer

Austin voters may get the chance to decide whether to expand police oversight in the November election.

Equity Action, a local political action committee dedicated to public safety reform, submitted 33,000 petition signatures to the city clerk on Monday in support of the Austin Police Oversight Act.

Under the city charter, eligible voters can pass laws via initiative petitions, bypassing City Council. Petitions must have at least 20,000 eligible voter signatures validated by the city clerk. Council must then adopt the petition as written or put it on the ballot for voters to decide. 

If passed, the Austin Police Oversight Act would create a local law governing the city’s Office of Police Oversight and Community Police Review Commission, removing them from the purview of the city’s labor contract with the police union. The law would grant the office and the commission access to any police records they require, including confidential personnel files, and allow the office to recommend disciplinary actions in cases of police misconduct. 

“We renegotiate our civilian review of police conduct, our whole process for accountability … every four years,” Kathy Mitchell, Equity Action treasurer and Just Liberty policy coordinator, told the Austin Monitor. “Sometimes it’s worse, sometimes it’s better. But overall, that constant renegotiation has not worked out well for the office or for the community.”

Mitchell said this petition effort aligns with the city’s push to expand oversight and transparency during its ongoing negotiations with the Austin Police Association, which represents Austin police officers. The two bargaining teams have been meeting since February in an effort to hash out a new contract before the current one expires on Sept. 30. 

“Negotiations are ongoing, and with requests changing frequently, the city is focused on continuing with discussions at this time,” a spokesperson said in a statement to the Austin Monitor. 

APA President Ken Casaday said the police union believes the Austin Police Oversight Act violates state law and will comment further after more review.  

In March, the city proposed deleting Article 16, a provision of the current contract related to civilian oversight of APD, including the Office of Police Oversight and Community Police Review Commission. Three months later, its bargaining team pushed to make officers’ personnel files public, including any allegations of misconduct, among other changes. 

“We have a national outcry on transparency. We have a local outcry. We need more transparency,” Sarah Griffin, the city’s deputy labor relations officer, said during the June 22 meeting. 

The police union has pushed back against these proposals, expressing its desire to maintain Article 16 and to keep certain portions of officers’ personnel files confidential. 

“Our goal here with Article 16 is to maintain the robust system that we have in place, to ensure its legitimacy and its authority, and then also to make sure that it stands the test of time and that we’re not regressing in any way,” Angie Jones, Austin Police Women’s Association member, said at an Aug. 4 meeting.

Melanie Rodriguez, APA board member and APWA president, said opening officers’ personnel files could surface false allegations and violate officers’ rights to due process.  

“There’s a reason why, in a court of law when you have a suspect in a case, the majority of the time you cannot have their whole involvement entered in the record,” she said at the same meeting. “If it didn’t result in a conviction or anything like that, you may have someone with a rap sheet that’s 48 pages long, but it’s not necessarily relevant (to the case at hand).” 

By codifying the powers of the Office of Police Oversight and Community Police Review Commission, Equity Action aims to strengthen the city’s oversight system and improve transparency. 

“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 and Austin Justice Coalition policy director, said in a statement Monday. 

Equity Action launched its first major campaign last summer. That campaign, No Way on Prop A, successfully opposed another initiative petition, spearheaded by Save Austin Now and APA, that would have required the city to hire hundreds of new police officers at an estimated cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Austin voters soundly rejected the proposition by 68 percent, opposed to 32 percent in favor, last November.

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