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Council sends police oversight act to voters, despite concerns about delay

Tuesday, September 20, 2022 by Emma Freer

Voters will decide in May whether to expand civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department after City Council declined to pass an initiative petition during a Sept. 15 meeting, with some members expressing concerns about potential legal challenges. 

The political action committee Equity Action submitted 33,000 petition signatures to the city clerk on Aug. 8 in support of the Austin Police Oversight Act. If passed, it would remove the city’s Office of Police Oversight and Community Police Review Commission from the purview of the city’s labor contract with the police union. It also 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 action in cases of police misconduct.

Petitions with at least 20,000 eligible voter signatures validated by the city clerk go to Council members, who must either adopt the petition as written or put it on the ballot for voters to decide.

The city clerk validated the petition earlier this month – though not in time for it to be included on the November ballot. Instead, voters will decide its fate in May, after Council will likely have approved a new four-year police labor contract and during a typically lower-turnout election cycle. 

Equity Action President Chris Harris raised concerns about this monthslong delay and lobbied Council members to pass the petition as written. 

“While we would’ve preferred to have this go to the voters in order to avoid another four or five years of police secrecy and impunity, the Austin City Council must vote the ordinance into law themselves right now,” he said in a statement earlier this month. “Passing this now strengthens police oversight and transparency in this next contract, but postponing until a May ’23 election means waiting until the contract in 2026 or 2027 to improve police accountability.” 

Dozens of Austinites echoed these concerns at the Council meeting.

“We cannot wait for the low-turnout May elections to engage in desperately needed police oversight,” Lynn Sprague said. “The city of Austin needs this legislation in place as soon as possible to make sure it’s there before police contract negotiations happen.”

Sam Kirsch, who alleges an Austin police officer shot him in the eye with a beanbag round during the May 2020 protests over police brutality and racism, similarly urged Council to approve the police oversight act.

“Basic transparency should have nothing to do with cops’ wages and benefits,” he said.

Tyree Talley, who also alleges APD used excessive force against him during the protests, testified through an interpreter about the impact of his injuries. 

“I was very fortunate that my eyes were not impacted. Being deaf, I could have been blinded,” he said. “I did not know what was going on. I had no warning. And, unfortunately I went through post-traumatic stress. I became homeless. I am still suffering with what happened. And I am trying to achieve some equity.”

Council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Ann Kitchen, Vanessa Fuentes and Paige Ellis voted to adopt the petition as written.

“Accountability and transparency are fundamental to good government,” Harper-Madison said. “What’s before us today is a proposal that would strengthen those two things.”

Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Pio Renteria, Chito Vela, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter expressed support for the petition, but preferred to leave its fate in the hands of Austin voters.

Vela and others worried that passing the oversight act would open the city up to legal challenges from state lawmakers, as has happened in the past, such as when Council cut APD’s budget in 2020 and overturned a ban on public camping in 2019. He wondered if the act would stand a better chance of success if passed by voters in May, toward the end of the upcoming state legislative session.

“The question is how do we pass (laws) and make them endure in a situation where we are frequently locking horns with the state government over the policies we try to implement in Austin,” Vela said. 

Adler also argued that the incoming Council – candidates for mayor and five Council seats will be on the November ballot – is unlikely to approve a new labor contract with the police union that “takes away from the people in the community the ability to vote on the issue of oversight.”

To police reform advocates, who have pushed Council to negotiate stronger police oversight and accountability in the past, this was a disappointment.  

“This is our last dance as this City Council today,” Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, said. “Come January, when that guy (Adler) is gone, (former Council Member) Greg (Casar) is gone, some of you may be replaced. This is our last dance when it comes to a big police thing.” 

After Council declined to pass the petition as written, members voted 10-0-1 to put it to voters in May, with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly abstaining. 

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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