AUSTIN (KXAN) — Voters will choose “yes” or “no” on two separate measures related to police oversight in May.

Those ballot items were the sticking point for City Council’s 9-2 vote in February to opt for a one-year extension of the Austin Police Department’s contract instead of adopting the tentative four-year deal agreed upon last week. That deal took about one year to negotiate.

Council members in support of the one-year deal want to wait and see how the public votes before agreeing upon a long-term police contract.

Why does the police contract matter to you?

Solidified contracts indicate stability for officers, and Chief Joseph Chacon said the absence of a long-term deal may exacerbate the already crisis-level staffing issue, which has an impact on response times and the department’s ability to proactively police.

In Austin, the police contract also has specific measures outlined for police oversight and details provisions on external police accountability. For example, the last long-term deal reached in 2018 created the Office of Police Oversight.

Breaking down the May ballot measures

One petition was put forth by the advocacy group Equity Action. It calls for, among other things, the Office of Police Oversight to have more access to certain police files.

After City Council moved to send that measure to voters, Equity Action claims canvassers “fraudulently” tried to get people to sign a “weaker” oversight petition.

KXAN uncovered that The Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability (VOPA), a group backed by the Austin Police Association (APA), was behind that petition. VOPA said it put forth its own measure that will go on the same ballot that doesn’t include components that would violate Texas law.

Both ballot items have the same name: The Austin Police Oversight Act. They begin with language differences written in the “Caption” and “Ordinance” sections, as seen below. Equity Action’s features more direct mention of police “misconduct.”

VOPA’s front page is on the left, Equity Action’s is on the right.

While both petitions contain many of the same points regarding the role of the Office of Police Oversight (OPO), Equity Action’s version has more provisions that give OPO more power.

Below are items and/or pieces of items that are in Equity Action’s measure but not VOPA’s.

Equity Action:

  • (5) Participate in investigations of officer conduct, including those stemming from anonymous complaints, with the right to gather evidence and directly interview witnesses as determined by the Director.
  • (10) Conduct, at minimum, a preliminary investigation of every complaint, determine whether a full investigation is warranted.
  • (11) Conduct random assessments of department use of force reviews
  • (13) Determine training requirements for members of the [Community Police Review] Commission

Both measures also have different provisions when it comes to the type of access OPO has to police files during internal investigations.

Equity Action’s measure states OPO shall have the below access:

“Direct access, without hindrance, to relevant department personnel and department records for purposes of pursuing the City’s police oversight policy including: records and personnel with relevant information concerning any use of force incident; records and personnel with relevant information concerning any police misconduct investigation; databases of use of force incident reports; and retained video, including but not limited to police body-worn cameras, police vehicle dash cameras and HALO cameras.”

Equity Action “Austin Police Oversight Act” Measure

VOPA’s measure does not include the “without hindrance” provision, and adds a line about releasing such records to OPO in accordance with Texas Law. See below.

Shall have access to relevant department records including: records with relevant information concerning any use of force incident; and records with relevant information concerning any police misconduct investigation; and retained video, including but not limited to police body-warn cameras, police vehicle dash cameras and HALO cameras, as necessary to carry out the responsibilities… in accordance with Texas Occupation Code, Chapter 1701.

Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability “Austin Police Oversight Act” Measure

Due to potential confusion between the two measures, the City has edited the ballot language to identify which group circulated which item.

How will the outcome of the vote impact police oversight in Austin?

In general, anything mapped out in an APD contract would overrule a City ordinance.

The labor negotiations team that worked with APD and the City on the contract said to City Council Wednesday “the legal effect of the Equity Action petition whether it’s in effect if there is no contract, many of those provisions and the will of the voters quite frankly will not come to pass.”

Rebecca Hayward, who spoke on behalf of the negotiators, said that is because certain aspects of that measure would be trumped by Texas law. Previously, APA president Thomas Villarreal said the provision regarding access to department and personnel files “without hindrance” is the component that conflicts with the state law.

Even if provisions mapped out aren’t able to immediately go into effect as law in the City, Chief Chacon said the outcome of the vote will impact upcoming discussions and the City and APA go back to the drawing board on a long-term deal.

“Presumably [it] would guide the future contract negotiations, the way in which oversight is done,” he said. “And so all of that is going to have to be examined and ultimately implemented.”

Chief Chacon said he does not believe official talks regarding a new long-term deal will start until the voters make their choice on these measures in the May election.