Police union takes legal action against Austin over police monitor

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A union that represents police officers across Texas filed for a temporary injunction against the city of Austin Monday because it is keeping the police monitor’s office open without a contract. The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and Austin Police Association say the city’s actions “have created immediate and irreparable harm.”

“The City had the Cadillac of all police oversight,” said Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday. “It was hands down the best in the state of Texas. Now they’re left with a Yugo.”

The police monitor is in charge of investigating complaints against police officers, as well as reviewing critical incidents and investigations. Currently, the Austin Police Department is working without a contract after the police association and city couldn’t come to an agreement in late December 2017. The city maintains despite this, police monitor Farah Muscadin can still do her job. CLEAT disagrees.

Earlier this year, Hart suspended the Citizen Review Panel because of the lack of a police contract. That panel investigates allegations of police misconduct, and couldn’t do its job without a meet and confer agreement in the contract that allowed them access to confidential information.

“While the Austin Police Association believes transparency and accountability are keys to fostering good relationships between law enforcement and the community, this intended action by the city and police department violates state laws which protect the privacy of civil servants,” said CLEAT’s staff attorney Houston Tower.

The entities are asking for an injunction since they believe the police monitor’s access to those records without a contract in place is an “unwarranted invasions” of officers’ personal privacy.

CLEAT wrote a letter to the interim city manager, Elaine Hart, saying the police monitor role was created in the contract, and that without it Muscadin cannot access certain files and information in order to do her job. Leading some to argue, the city manager is allowed to make that decision.

“The city manager has oversight over the entire city,” said District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.

However, if Hart, or newly appointed City Manager Spencer Cronk, is allowed access to those files, CLEAT argues that is breaking the law.

“We could actually be sued,” said CLEAT Executive Director Charlie Wilkinson, “And so could the Austin Police Association if we were to be so negligent to enter into some malpractice moment where we decide to let this slide. There is no sliding. They violated the law, they knew they were violating the law and so we’ve sued them.”

A spokesperson for the city issued a statement stating, “Our position on the Office of the Police Monitor has been consistent and we continue to strive to uphold the accountability of police actions to maintain and improve relations between law enforcement and the community. We will continue to operate within the law and the Office of the Police Monitor will continue to carry out its important work.”

Now, CLEAT, APA and the city are scheduled to meet on Wednesday, Feb. 28 to start negotiations for a future labor contract.

“Part of the conversation is the public oversight and the transparency,” said Mayor Steve Adler. “That’s something that we do not only to help protect the community but to help protect the officers.”

The police monitor will not be the only point of discussion during that time.

“My primary concerns in December were financial,” said Flannigan. “When we looked at the numbers as they laid out it became very clear that we were going to have to max out the tax rate every single year for five years in a row and still not be able to hire the number of officers that we know that we need in our growing city.”

However, everyone agrees, a new contract is on the horizon.

“It will just lay the ground rules,” said Casaday about the upcoming meeting with the city. “Will there be something that’s done tomorrow? [There’s a] 99.9 percent chance, no. Can we get something done in the next three to six months? I think we can.”

If the police association gets a judge to stop the police monitor’s extra layer of oversight, Muscadin would not be allowed to investigate 15 or so office disciplinary cases- ranging from car accidents to officer-involved shootings-that have happened so far in 2018.

A hearing on the temporary injunction has yet to be scheduled.

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