AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council voted Tuesday to put several measures on the ballot this May. One will ask voters to consider making Austin’s Office of Police Oversight, which holds police accountable, stronger and more independent.
“If we want police accountability, then we need our police oversight office to be as independent as possible,” said Austin City Council Member Greg Casar. “In other cities, the Office of Police Oversight is independently appointed or is overseen by a civilian board, but right now our options as a city are limited. By making this proposed charter change in May, the community and city council have the opportunity to create more transparency and accountability of our police department in the future.”
Casar, who sponsored the proposal to send the idea to voters, said he’d like to see Austin using a model more like New Orleans or Seattle, which both have police oversight independent of the city.
Casar also said he’d like to see the Office of Police Oversight run like the Office of the City Auditor, which does not answer to city administration, unlike the OPO.
“She independently releases reports, independently looks into issues at the city, and then she releases her reports that are covered by the press and talked about in the media that sometimes are very critical of the decisions that are being made,” he said of City Auditor Corrie Stokes.
Seattle’s Inspector General for Public Safety Lisa Judge said having mostly independent oversight helps her better tackle systemic issues in her city’s police department.
“We can identify, you know, trends that may be problematic through audits and reviews and best practice policy research,” Judge said.
However, she said oversight in Seattle also has a major weakness — no real ability for enforcement.
“We can all identify concerns,” Judge said. “But, it’s really largely up to the police department to take those and put them in action.”
The Texas Municipal Police Association said because of the Austin Police Department’s police contract, Austin would have the same problem despite any changes voters approve.
“They can’t give it any authority,” said TMPA Executive Director Kevin Lawrence.
Instead, Lawrence recommends the city negotiate OPO changes with Austin’s police union directly. That’s something he said Houston and Dallas have done.
“Having that sense of cooperation and that sense of, you know, working together is possible,” Lawrence said. “It’s being done a lot of different places.”
Casar stresses the May vote won’t address how the OPO’s structure would change. He said while Austin may look to other model cities, specifics would be decided through community discussion after the vote.
“We are not putting on the ballot in May the New Orleans model or the Seattle model,” Casar said. “This charter amendment doesn’t actually set the path. It creates the opportunity for the community to come together if this passes and come up with a model that’s right for Austin.”
In a statement, OPO Director Farah Muscadin told KXAN, “Austin has a long-standing history of robust public engagement around charter amendments. I look forward to that dialogue, as it pertains to Police Oversight, over the coming weeks, and learning more about how this proposal might impact our office’s work to ensure all residents experience equitable treatment by Austin Police.”