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Ordinance would remove civilian oversight of police from labor contract

Monday, October 24, 2022 by Emma Freer

The city of Austin laid out its plan for removing the Office of Police Oversight from its labor contract with the Austin Police Association, the union that represents police officers, as well as its aim to reach a new agreement expeditiously during a negotiation session Wednesday.

“(W)e don’t believe that the public should have to come to the bargaining table and ask for permission to have oversight for the police department because the police department functions under the authority and the prerogative of the city manager,” Lowell Denton, an outside attorney and labor negotiator for the city, told APA’s bargaining team. 

The city has floated its proposal to remove the OPO from the contract before. But the bargaining team offered more specifics at the most recent meeting.

Denton said city staffers are in the process of drafting an ordinance that would define the OPO’s authority – and its limitations – largely in keeping with what’s in the current contract. Pending an agreement with APA and approval from City Council, the ordinance also would allow OPO to review complaints of misconduct, including asking complainants for more detail, before determining whether to recommend further investigation by APD, and to participate more fully in investigations, including being able to require additional witnesses be interviewed, be present during witness interviews and question witnesses.

“This assures the citizens of this community that somebody that’s not a police officer … is going to be thinking about which facts matter here, what questions haven’t historically been answered,” Denton said. “People that don’t trust the process, that believe that the questions are softballs, that the hard questions don’t get asked, have the assurance that this process is going to be complete.”

In cases where APD doesn’t heed OPO’s recommendations, the ordinance would allow OPO to appeal the decision to the police chief and to publicize any deviations in a quarterly report to the city manager. 

The ordinance also would codify existing guardrails. If passed, OPO still wouldn’t have subpoena or disciplinary authority over officers, which Denton argued balanced APA’s concerns about officers’ due process with community members’ demands for increased transparency and accountability.

“What we are saying here is that ordinance and the policy of the city … is not going to change those two things,” he said.

The city’s bargaining team also revisited its previous proposal to make portions of officers’ personnel files public, including disciplinary histories. 

Denton said the city had modified its earlier demand in response to APA’s concerns and now proposes only to release such information in critical incidents, which include officer-involved shootings, use of force resulting in death or serious bodily injury, and deaths in custody. 

“We believe that limiting this to critical incidents is an appropriate place to draw a line, demonstrating to the public that we want them to have access to the material that’s most important,” he said. 

The city’s proposals arrive in the wake of a 2021 ruling in which an arbitrator found OPO “had illegally investigated complaints against police officers” and “ordered (the office) to stop doing so,” as The Austin Chronicle reported in January.

The proposals also follow Council’s recent decision to let Austin voters decide in May whether to approve the Austin Police Oversight Act, a petition initiative spearheaded by the political action committee Equity Action. If passed, it would remove OPO and the Community Police Review Commission from future contracts and grant the office and commission access to any police records they require, including confidential personnel files, and allow the office to recommend disciplinary action in cases of police conduct.  

In the meantime, Denton stressed that the city is eager to reach an agreement before the contract expires in March. Any agreement must be approved by City Council and ratified by APA member officers.

“We are prepared to go forward and would like to engage with y’all in fairly intense bargaining,” he said. “Our city management would very much like for us to do our best to put this contract together and to reach an agreement as quickly as possible, if that’s feasible.” 

Ron DeLord, an attorney for APA, said the bargaining team would have a response during the next negotiation session, which is set for Tuesday. 

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