Austin voters pass Prop A. What does that mean and what happens next?
Posted For: firemedic5100 FJB!
The Austin City Council on Tuesday will canvass the votes from the May 6 election, and backers of Proposition A say that means the city’s civilian oversight office can get back to work investigating allegations of police misconduct.
Proposition A, which was circulated by the criminal justice nonprofit Equity Action, was designed to return powers to the civilian police oversight office and allow investigators to access all police records and interview witnesses while gathering evidence of police misconduct. The measure allows the Office of Police Oversight to make recommendations on discipline to the police chief.
Austin voters this month overwhelmingly supported Proposition A while rejecting Proposition B, which was designed to essentially keep the Office of Police Oversight from conducting initial reviews of complaints or being part of the evidence-gathering portion of an investigation. The measure was financially backed by the Austin Police Association, the city’s police union.
But since the vote, all attention has been on state lawmakers’ Senate Bill 2209, which could override what Austin voters just approved and prevent civilian agencies, such as Austin’s Office of Police Oversight, from participating in any investigations of police misconduct.
The bill is sitting in a House committee and still has time to be voted on before the regular session ends, but for now the power lies at the local level.
Here’s what we know while SB 2209 continues through the Legislature:
How soon can the new provisions and rules be implemented?
Some aspects of the proposition could seemingly be implemented now, while others require further contract negotiations, said Kathy Mitchell, a senior adviser with Equity Action.
The city’s Office of Police Oversight should now have “unfettered access to information regarding incidents that are reported to them,” Mitchell said.
The passage of Proposition A returned powers — stripped after a December 2021 arbitration hearing — to the civilian oversight office and allows investigators to access all police records and interview witnesses while gathering evidence of police misconduct.
But Mitchell said some provisions cannot be introduced without negotiations, such as implementing a 365-day rule, an expansion of the 180-day window during which a police chief could discipline officers for misconduct.
“Those provisions cannot be implemented until then, and that is fine,” Mitchell said. “Because we can immediately have a better oversight system now, and then we can improve it over time.”
What does the Austin Police Association have to say about it?
The Austin Police Association has not spoken to the Statesman about the proposition since it passed, and multiple requests for comment from Thomas Villarreal, the union’s president, have not been returned.
But in a threaded tweet last week, the assocation called the provisions laid out in Proposition A illegal, saying, “The APA simply will not stand by while this city and anti-police activists operate with blatant disregard for state law and the rights and protections afforded to our hardworking men and women.”
The group said that it “continues to prioritize negotiating a long-term contract but will not be forced back to the table under a structure in which a new city ordinance attempts to unlawfully interfere with the statutory rights associated with the meet and confer process.”
What does this mean for the Austin Police Department?
Police Chief Joe Chacon and other police experts say the tension could give off the impression of instability, making it difficult to recruit and retain officers. The Police Department has been struggling with staffing woes, reporting a shortage of more than 300 officers.
The lack of staffing has led to slow response times for 911 calls, a problem that triggered a partnership between the Austin Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. The partnership is temporarily on hold while DPS troopers are deployed to the Texas-Mexico border after the end of Title 42 enforcement.
How does this affect residents?
In February, the Austin Police Assocation brought forth a four-year contract that the city did not enter, citing a desire to give voters a chance to weigh in on the police oversight ballot measures. A contract helps ensure stability for officers and their families.
Ken Casaday, former president of the association, told the American-Statesman that a well-trained and fully staffed police force means people are getting the help they need when they need it.
What about that Senate bill?
As of Monday, the Senate bill was still pending in the House Urban Affairs Committee.
The bill would eliminate civilian oversight systems statewide.
It is not clear whether the bill will make it to the floor, but Mitchell said if it does become law “it would be disastrous for police community relations across the state.”
“After Uvalde, not a lot of voters in Texas believe that police should police themselves,” Mitchell said. “A lawmaker must be able to do civilian oversight in jurisdictions like Uvalde, where there is none. It’s clear in Uvalde the problem was not a lack of policing, or understaffing, or getting there fast enough. We needed civilian oversight to identify the actual problem and make sure they get solved.”