Activists are claiming victory after a drawn-out fight over police accountability, and encouraging other cities to follow suit.
After 18 months of tense negotiations over a police union contract, the Austin City Council and the city’s police union have agreed to reforms that anti-police brutality activists say could turn the Austin Police Department into one of the most transparent law enforcement agencies in the country.
On Thursday, Austin City Council members approved an ordinance creating a new Office of Police Oversight, an independent police watchdog that reports to the city manager. The office is empowered to initiate complaints against officers, investigate allegations of police misconduct and publicize its findings. Unlike the city’s old office of police monitor, the new office can now accept anonymous complaints. It’s also authorized to conduct periodic audits of police body and dashboard camera footage, as well as use-of-force incidents.
Under the new agreement, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley must respond publicly if he disagrees with disciplinary actions or policy changes that that the police oversight office recommends after reviewing a case. Chris Harris, an activist with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit working to end mass incarceration, said the new oversight structure will make it easier for citizens to reform the department.
The new emphasis on transparency, Harris said, “is really, really important so that the community understands the true scope of police misconduct. It is important for us to understand if our police department is policing within community standards.”
Advocates for police reform argued the previous police union contract, which mirrored others across the country, protected cops and offered only toothless oversight. For instance, suspensions of three days or less were reduced to written reprimands after two years passed and effectively disappeared. Advocates for police reform targeted the union contract after a series of troubling incidents, like the 2016 police shooting of unarmed, naked teenager David Joseph.
A citizen panel that reviewed Joseph’s death called the shooting “evidence of systemic problems with APD’s use of force practices and tactics” and urged police to change the way they respond to people with mental illness. Last year, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reviewed the citizen panel’s recommendations in other cases, including other mental health calls that resulted in cops killing people, and found that police officials mostly ignored them. A city audit released in June largely said the same thing. Another audit released in September concluded that among large cities, Austin has “the highest per capita rate of fatal police shootings involving persons believed to be experiencing a mental health crisis.”
Pointing to the mounting evidence, community leaders argued that Austin police can’t police themselves. On Thursday, the City Council seemed to agree.
The drawn-out, 18-month battle over the police union contract also underscored divisions between community groups and police that will likely continue even with the new agreement. Activists repeatedly referenced Breaion King’s 2015 traffic stop for speeding, during which white officer Bryan Richter ripped the 26-year-old black elementary teacher out of her car, slammed her to the pavement and then charged her with resisting arrest. Thanks to a rule rooted in state law, police only have 180 days from the date of any alleged misconduct to investigate and discipline officers. APD higher-ups, who said they were “sickened and saddened” by King’s treatment, couldn’t do anything about it because they only learned of the incident after someone leaked video of King’s arrest to the media, after the 180-day window had closed.
During negotiations with the city, the Austin Police Association fought to keep the 180-day rule in the new contract. The only tweak is that the clock doesn’t start running on cases involving possible criminal misconduct until high-ranking officials learn of an incident. Arguably, the cop who slammed King to the ground could’ve been investigated for misconduct under the new version. Still, the assisting white officer who gave King a racist lecture while he hauled her to jail wouldn’t have been investigated or disciplined.
While the union was relieved to end negotiations and ink a new contract, it walks away from the process bruised and disappointed. When City Council rejected the union’s five-year, $82.5 million contract proposal last year, special stipends and many other perks ended for Austin police officers. While they didn’t quit in droves as some had predicted, “there’s still a lot of pent-up emotions,” according to Ron DeLord, a lead negotiator for the union, who literally wrote the book on building and maintaining police union power. Many officers to this day believe that City Council members didn’t show sufficient respect to police when they voted against their contract last year. “There’s a little bit of raw feelings on the police side,” DeLord told the Observer on Wednesday before the council vote. “They felt that council didn’t control that meeting and allowed people for 10 hours to just bash the police without anyone standing up for them, for the good things that they do.”
DeLord rejects the notion that the impasse over the contract was ever primarily about oversight. The four-year, $44.6 million agreement approved on Thursday comes with a much smaller price tag than last year’s proposal. He argues the “noise” about police oversight gave Austin leaders “an excuse to hit the pause button” and time to negotiate the price down. He doubts other cities will follow Austin’s path. “There is no other Austin. You look at San Antonio, Fort Worth, Houston, there’s no huge cry for oversight like there is in Austin.”
Chas Moore, co-founder and director of the Austin Justice Coalition, hopes other cities take notice. Frustrated by controversies like Joseph’s death and King’s violent arrest, activists targeted Austin’s police union contract as a vehicle for reform — something that Moore insists other cities can and should do.
“After these changes, Austin has the most transparent police department in Texas, probably in the country,” Moore said. He says there’s more work to be done — for example, activists pushed for but failed to get a citizen oversight board with subpoena power — but insists Thursday’s vote is a major step forward.
“We can’t fix what we can’t see, and now we’ll be able to see a whole lot more,” he said.