14 Dec In historic move, Austin City Council rejects police union contract

by Cassandra Champion

Late Wednesday night, the Austin City Council members voted unanimously to send a five-year contract between the city and the local police union back to negotiation. The decision came after months of organizing by community members and over 7 hours of testimony highlighting the lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight in the contract.

The proposed contract was rated as among the worst in the country by national civil rights groups and many of its provisions were cited as reasons for Austin’s high rate of police misconduct.

Along with nearly 200 other community members, I was able to present to the Council jut why the contract was a bad deal for Austinites and for civil rights in Texas:

” My name is Cassandra Champion, and I’m a Staff Attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. I work within our Criminal Justice Reform program. Over the course of the 5 years I have worked there, we’ve gotten countless calls from community members complaining of misconduct at the hands of officers. We know this is not just a problem identified by a few vocal activists. The perception of APD as unaccountable to the community is real and common. But right now, we have an opportunity to make profound change. But why would you? I offer 3 reasons:

First, the proposed contract still does not do enough to achieve accountability. Despite the tweaks the APA has made, if any suspension can be reduced to written reprimands, we will not be able to see concrete patterns of misconduct on paper. APD officers have committed infractions both on-duty and off-duty for which they were disciplined, only to have that discipline drastically minimized in their personnel file. Officers are still able to be promoted without having any history of misconduct factored into the consideration through tangible measures. The Chief told us tonight that these things would not show up when they pulled an officer’s file.

These shortcomings breed mistrust within communities of color who are disproportionately victims of misconduct. For example, residents avoid calling the police for fear of becoming the target of the investigation or fear that officers will escalate a situation. It makes us all less safe.

Second, the proposed contract still does not allow for enough meaningful oversight from independent reviewers. The Citizen Review Panel can’t initiate or conduct any investigations, they have limited access to information, and frequently their recommendations cannot be shared with the public. The new contract may allow CRP members to view Internal Affairs interviews, but they still only have access to the information APD gives them.

If we want investigations to be fair and balanced, this requires insight from people not mired in the very department which needs reform.

Third, if we want this City to be a true leader in giving the community a voice and not repeating mistakes of the past, we must take steps toward change and improvement. Throughout this negotiation process, the APA has refused to consider most of the terms advocated by community groups. Meanwhile other cities are beginning to catch on. San Francisco goes a long way toward giving communities a voice at the table with law enforcement. As we’ve heard, Austin is at the bottom in terms of problematic contract terms. We can and should do more.

If we agree these things are problems, we must commit to work together to fearlessly fight for changes that will improve APD operations and build trust within the community. That change happens now and will continue long-term by creating systems that reflect the values of all of the people in this room.

If you are ready to make that commitment, I urge you to vote no on this contract and make room for the reforms we need. Thank you.

The Austin City Council has directed the creation of a new contract to come back for a vote before March 22. The current contract expires at the end of December, but there is still the option to renew it.

 

Cassandra Champion is a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.